Radical Reconstruction

The radical republicans believed blacks were entitled to the same political rights and opportunities as whites. They also believed that the confederate leaders should be punished for their roles in the civil war. Many leaders opposed Andrew Johnson’s lenient policies; a great political battle was soon to unfold.

Americans never liked the idea of the federal government playing too big a role in the affairs of the state. Radicals felt that the times called for direct intervention in state affairs and laws designed to protect the emancipated blacks; they believed that blacks must be given a chance to compete in a free-labor economy. In 1866, this activist Congress also introduced a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen's Bureau and began work on a Civil Rights Bill.

President Johnson opposed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, claiming that it would bloat the size of government. He vetoed the civil Rights Bill rejecting that blacks have the” same rights of property and person” as whites. Moderate Republicans were appalled at Johnson’s racism. They joined with the Radicals to overturn Johnson’s Civil Rights Act veto; this was the first time a major piece of legislation was overturned. The Radicals hoped that the Civil Rights Act would lead to an active federal judiciary with courts enforcing rights.

Congress then turned its attention to amending the constitution. In 1867, they approved the 14th Amendment, which prohibited “states from abridging equality before the law.” The second part of the Amendment provided for a reduction of a state’s representatives if suffrage was denied. Republicans offered the South a choice—accept black enfranchisement or lose congressional representation.

Influenced by the work of the Fourteenth Amendment and by local political victories in the 1866 elections, the Republicans went on to introduce the Reconstruction Act of 1867. This removed the right to vote and seek office by “leading rebels.” Now the Southern Unionists; southerners who supported the Union during the war—became the new Southern leadership. The Reconstruction Act also divided the South into five military districts under commanders empowered to employ the army to protect black property and citizens.

The first two years of the Congressional Reconstruction saw Southern states rewrite their constitutions and the ratification of the 14th Amendment. Congress seemed to be in full control. One thing stood in the way—President Johnson. Radical leaders employed an extraordinary constitutional remedy to clear the impediment, Presidential impeachment.

Source: Radical Reconstruction
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